Edward, my best friend from primary school, came to Bern to see Holland play Romania. I’m not Dutch but I grew up in a small Dutch town, and 30 years ago Edward and I used to phone each other at half-time during Holland’s games for breathless analysis. On Tuesday we sat on the pavement in the Swiss sun, had a beer and swapped news about our mothers. Then Edward said: “Simon, all this is unprecedented.”
It’s true. These 30 years the Netherlands has generally been the best small football country on earth, but we’ve never had a fortnight like this. So far at Euro 2008 we have beaten the world champions Italy 3-0 and the runners-up France 4-1, while our reserves have tossed aside Romania 2-0. Whatever happens in Saturday’s quarter-final against Russia, this feels miraculous.
To try to understand, I’ve been reading what foreign journalists say about Holland. There is one recurring story: the Dutch always destroy themselves through infighting, but this time they haven’t yet. This shoddy half-truth misses the point about Dutch football. Holland are good precisely because our players quarrel about football. And that is particularly true now, because the genesis of the current side was an argument in a hotel room.
The Dutch have quarrelled about the game since about 1970, when Johan Cruyff emerged as the father of Dutch football. He said: “Football is a game you play with your head.” Every Dutchman who ever placed a pass – and the country usually has the world’s highest density of registered footballers – grew up in this tradition. When I was 12 and playing in a kids’ team, half of us would go to the snack bar after matches and debate what had gone wrong over frites.
The English don’t have that tradition. Mark Burke had played for various English clubs when in 1995 he joined the Dutch side Fortuna Sittard. “In England if the manager said it, you just did it,” Burke told me. “When I went to Fortuna I noticed how much the players talked.” During games, team-mates would call to him: “One metre, one metre left!” Training sessions would be interrupted by 15-minute seminars on the relative positioning of the centre-backs. Burke says: “I really started to understand the shape of the field, horizontally and vertically. In England the only time I had training sessions like that was when I went on coaching courses.”
Of course the Dutch debates have downsides. Cruyff, who favoured what he called the “conflictmodel” of working relations, quarrelled with the great goalkeeper Jan van Beveren before the 1974 World Cup. Van Beveren didn’t go to that World Cup, or the one in 1978. Holland lost both in the final, partly due to goalkeeping errors. The conflictmodel also destroyed Holland at the 1990 World Cup and at Euro 96. This summer, the midfielders Mark van Bommel and Clarence Seedorf have stayed home rather than work with Holland’s manager Marco van Basten.
And yet the quarrels over football are now helping Holland. In recent years it had become clear that the traditional Dutch formation with two wingers no longer worked. Last autumn Van Basten asked his captain, Edwin van der Sar, to consult the other players about what to do. Van der Sar called a “group of seven” senior players to his hotel room. They proposed playing with just one forward and five midfielders. Van Basten acquiesced.
It was exactly the sort of consultation that management books would recommend. It was done without conflict, because Dutch football, after passing from an amateur era through the pop-star 1970s, is now as corporate as football everywhere else. And the employees liked being consulted. Before Euro 2008, two friends of mine organised a football quiz for the Dutch squad. Wesley Sneijder won, with cheating. But what struck my friends was how happy a camp it was. When Van der Sar raised his hand to protest that a question was wrong, the entire squad in unison began chanting, “Losers!” (in English) at the quizmasters.
Here in Switzerland the Dutch are even happier. The new formation has worked beautifully. With two defensive midfielders behind them, the creative midfielders are free to create. Nobody is glued to the touchline anymore like a parody of a 1970s winger. Instead of stringing together endless passes, the Dutch now wait until the opposition lose the ball and then break instantly à la Arsenal.
The Dutch could absorb a new system only because they think. Each player is a playmaker, making autonomous decisions on the field. When leading 2-0 against the world champions, left-back Giovanni van Bronckhorst decided to gallop 80 metres forward and score with a header. Meanwhile, another player instantly took over his position, because everyone is thinking, and consulting on the field. When it goes quiet during games here, you hear the Dutch players calling out instructions.
Dutch football is a fragile plant, and we could easily go home on Saturday. But if Edward and I are lucky enough to have another beer on some foreign pavement at the World Cup 30 years from now, we might conclude that this week was the peak.
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